The twelve years old twins Anna and Matthew King lived in an old villa at the foot of the Euganean hills near Padua. The house stood on the hillside, surrounded by centuries-old elms and chestnuts, under which, during the summer, the children loved to sit eating or reading.
On the façade of the house, there was an old sundial that their father Andrew, professor of medieval history at the university, had personally restored which caused the children to laugh seeing him buried under mountains of books trying to bring new shine to the sundial without changing its “historical feature”, as he said. Their mother was an archaeologist and spent most of the year around the world in search of treasures from the past. She did not see the children often, but during the holidays she always would insist that they come with her so that they could spend as much time as possible with her, helping to unearth and preserve the artefacts that they found.
The twins grew up in a unique atmosphere, between the English traditions of their father and the adventures around the world of the Italian mother.
Anna and Matt were rather eccentric, their favourite pastimes were neither videogames nor watching TV, instead they spent lots of time in the library inside their house, trying to solve what they called in their imagination “the great magical-archaeological mystery”: scientifically proving the existence of dragons. Involved since childhood in their parents’ passions, by twelve they were able to decipher hieroglyphs as well as the most important archaic writings; they were experts in Celtic myths, and knew by heart the medieval legends with a special preference for those about wizards, and, of course, dragons. On a sunny morning in June, the twins sat under the trees at a small wrought iron table with the laptop open in front of them. They were surfing the web, looking for news and legends about African dragons.
Anna turned to her brother «Try to find something believable Matt. It would be exciting to go to Egypt with mom, and search for dragons on our own.»
After two hours of unsuccessful researches, Matt was impatient and replied «Well, do you want to try by yourself, you, the genius of the family? Give me another keyword, so far we’ve only found bridge clubs and role play games.»
«Write “Hic sunt dracones”» his sister suggested promptly.
A list of sites that seemed interesting appeared on the screen.
«Look Anna!» Matt said «The Phoenix and African dragons: myths and interpretations! Listen, it says this information has been taken from the book “Arabian myths” written by Jacques de Clairance in 1432.»
«Hurry up Matt, let’s check daddy’s library. Take the keys.»
Andrew King had turned a large room on the ground floor into a library, study and museum. The walls had shelves crammed with books up to the ceiling. On one side of the room, there was a desk. The other three sides were full of tables on which laid an extraordinary collection of ancient pottery and the painted or carved wooden boxes his wife regularly brought home when she returned from her pilgrimages around the world. The twins were forbidden to access the library, but they had keys they kept carefully hidden.
Certain that their grandmother at that time was busy in the kitchen, the children slipped into the corridor and sidled into “the forbidden temple”, as they called the library. Books were stored alphabetically. Anna took a ladder, climbed up, and after a couple of minutes, triumphantly cried: «I found it!»
Her enthusiasm played her a dirty trick, she stumbled on the last step, she lost the balance, and she hit the table behind her. A wooden box fell to pieces on the floor.
«Wow! When our father sees this, I’ll become an only child» said Matt.
«Your sense of humour is very English, you can be proud of it! Don’t just stand there, help me fix this mess!»
As Anna bent over the pieces of the box, she realized that a strange object had fallen on the floor from a mysterious false bottom of the box that had opened when it landed.
The twins stood still in amazement for a minute. Anna recovered first.
«It looks like an ancient seal, doesn’t it?»
The object in her hands was a bony cylinder, maybe ivory, surmounted by a beautiful miniature in the shape of dragon’s head. On one side, the twins saw engraved symbols that they’d never seen before.
«Do we put it back?» asked Matthew.
«Nobody knows that this seal exists so let’s put the box back together, and keep the seal. From this moment we have a real mystery to solve, we must try to decipher the carvings. Doesn’t it seem like they’re a mix between Egyptian hieroglyphs and Celtic runes?» said Anna.
«You’re totally crazy!» answered Matt «I don’t know why, but I get the impression that our sensational discovery will cause us a lot of troubles.»
«Now you get scared?» Anna teased, and at the same time opened the door slightly to peep if the corridor was empty.
«Go ahead, let’s move.»
They went to their rooms, and hid the artefact. Then they returned in the garden as if nothing ever happened.
«Where were you? I called you three times, didn’t you hear me?» asked their grandmother. The twins had inherited blue eyes and blond hair from their father and the typical Italian complexion from their mother. They seemed as good and innocent as angels, but as the saying goes “Sometimes appearances are misleading”, and they were especially misleading in this case.
The twins had sharp minds and a strong bond with each, as it often happens in such cases. Sometimes this lead to a phenomena that could be described as mutual mind reading. In this way, they could make a mess without betraying each other and without being found out.
«We climbed to the top of the hill, and didn’t hear you» they answered together.
The grandmother looked at them for a while, then convinced by their innocent appearance, she said: «Your father invited Doc. Martini to dine with us.»
«The super expert in ancient writings? What a luck!»
Before Matt could finish the sentence his sister gave him a nudge in the stomach.
«Uh, I mean it will be interesting, he’ll tell us nice stories.»
«What are you doing? You seem quite odd» said their grandmother.
«Nothing at all. We just like we always are, aren’t we Matt?» said his sister.
«Absolutely, wretchedly normal» agreed Matt.
«You aren’t telling me the truth anyway I almost forgot to tell you that your mother called; she booked the return flight from Cairo, she should land in Verona tomorrow» finished their grandmother.
After lunch, the twins went upstairs.
Their large bedrooms were adjoining with wooden floors and windows overlooking the trees in the garden. The furniture was not like classical children’s room. Anna had a canopy bed with carved dragons wrapped around the posts, a gift her mother brought back from excavations in Southern China.
Matt had a fresco on a wall, showing a dragon flying over the English countryside, as in his favourite fairy tale that his father told him at least a million times when he was a little child.
They sat down on a carpet in front of the window in Anna’s room, and began to look at the seal carefully and without rushing. The dragon’s head was carved with skill and lots of details; they could see the teeth in the opened jaws, two long whiskers on both sides of the snout and the dilated nostrils. The eyes were two yellow stones, a crest crossed its head that curiously was not covered with scales, but with something similar to a flowing fur.
On the cylinder base there was a sort of coat of arms with carved initials. The surface however had four squares similar to cartouches, full of symbols drawn in a mysterious language.
«This object looks like a wax seal, doesn’t it?» Matt turned to Anna.
«Do you think it is a joke? Or a fake? The box that held it was from the fourteen century, mommy bought it at an auction years ago. Is it possible that nobody has ever noticed it?»
Anna reflected for a while before giving an answer.
«At that time, dragons were already extinct in the United Kingdom. Let’s assume it is authentic, the question is why did someone own a seal of such an exquisite workmanship, filled with unknown characters written inside an Egyptian cartouche? Remember, at that time most people were ignorant, I am sure they had not the faintest idea of what a Pharaoh cartouche was. Besides they could be incriminated for witchcraft for writing in mysterious letters, and they could be brought straight to the stake.»
«I have a brilliant idea, let’s show these writings to Dr. Martini, and see what comes out» suggested Matt.
«Dear brother, either your IQ just dropped or you have to explain what you have in mind. We cannot go to dinner this evening and say “Daddy, we entered the library by ourselves, even though it’s forbidden, we destroyed mommy’s beautiful medieval box, and we found this object. Instead of putting it back, we decided to hide it”.»
«You underestimate your brother’s genius» said Matt, taking the know-it-all attitude that made Anna furious.
«Now I pick up some tracing paper, with a pencil we copy one of the cartouches, we draw it on a white sheet, and this evening we’ll say we saw it on a TV program!»
Late in the afternoon Andrew King came back home driving along the driveway. He got out of the car carrying a huge bag full of steaks, ribs and sausages in front of the astonished eyes of the twins, who were waiting at the door.
«Hello dad, I guess you want to use the barbeque tonight, but I’m curious how many people did you invite to dine?» asked Anna.
«Well, you two, your grandmother, Paolo Martini and me. Do you think I went overboard with food?»
«Just a little. If we invite three dragons to dinner, maybe we will be able to finish it all» said Matt.
«Granny will have a heart attack! She will never be able to fit all this stuff in the freezer!»
Andrew King was the classic scholar, not much inclined for practical things of life.
They dined under the trees. Paolo Martini was a brilliant expert in archaic languages, he adored the twins, and they felt the same affection for him. At the end of the evening Matt nonchalantly introduced the subject he was so interested in.
«Today on Science Channel we saw an interesting documentary about ancient languages not yet deciphered! They showed the Hittite cuneiform, and also showed symbols they called proto-hieroglyphs; they said they belonged to people who inhabited Egypt before the Pharaohs!»
«Of course! Right! It is scientifically proven that Aliens lived there, and that the Pyramids are the terrestrial map of the Orion constellation. If even cultural channels broadcast such nonsense, it is better to not watch TV» said Paolo Martini.
«And read a good book!» ended Anna.
«Anyway, Can you tell us what you think of this?» the twins asked in unison, putting the drawing reproducing the cartouches of the Seal on the table.
Paolo Martini took the sheet, and looked at it carefully.
«Martians my foot! This is the reproduction of The Dragons’ Alphabet, created in the 1950’s by a professor who spent his lifetime searching for both European and Asian dragons’ origins. He studied so hard at the same things that I think he became…how can I put this? He was a little affected by it. At a certain point, he announced he had discovered the ancient writing of legendary creatures that according to him, were wise and enlightened beings that the Maker sent to earth to make our primitive ancestors evolve.»
«In short, Paolo says that the fellow in question was as mad as a hatter» concluded Andrew King.
The revelation struck the twins; they exchanged a quick look of understanding and pushed on «Come on! Tell us more about this man! It’s a very interesting story!»
Doc. Martini continued, «If I’m not mistaken, the chap’s name was Arthur McKenzie, he wrote many treaties, but they were never taken seriously by anyone; that much is quite obvious to me. Ah! There is a curious anecdote about his death; he wrote in his will to throw his coffin in Loch Ness, his heirs, of course, did not follow his will. That’s all I remember. Returning to your mysterious writings, I can still say that the Professor demonstrated that he had a lot of imagination. These ideograms or hieroglyphs, if you prefer, are a mix of runes and Egyptian symbols. As you know well, Celts and Egyptians never had contact. I think our scientist wanted to create suspense and mystery. Don’t waste your time with this foolishness, okay?»
Anna and Matthew had already decided in their hearts that they would indeed waste their time with this nonsense, but with a confident expression, they said «We won’t waste anymore time, it’s just that we were intrigued by this thing. Sometimes we see mysteries where there aren’t any.»
A squeal of tires on the gravel driveway of the villa interrupted the discussion.
«Who can it be? I’m not expecting anybody else» said Andrew.
«It’s mom! Mommy is coming back! Finally! What a surprise! Dad, who else has the remote control of the gate?» The twins cried in the grip of wild enthusiasm.
In fact, they had not seen her for four months.
A white car stopped in the forecourt near the main entrance. Elena King got out from the passenger side. She was tall, thin, with brown hair and enviably tanned.
Anna and Matt ran to hug her; it was a very happy moment, and all three began to jig about holding hands. In the meantime, Andrew and Paolo Martini reached them.
Elena hugged her husband, and then the children overwhelmed her with their questions.
«Did you bring us any presents? Any surprises?» began Matt.
«Did you discover anything new? You are the most brilliant archaeologist in the world» continued Anna.
«Gently, please! I brought some little things, but they are buried in a suitcase, so you must wait patiently!» said Elena laughing happily.
«You are as dark as chocolate» declared Andrew admired. He was properly English, and he had the tendency to burn easily.
«More than a chocolate bar, I felt like a kebab because of the burning sun and the scorching heat! By the way there is a lovely smell of grilled meat, is there anything left for us?» said Elena.
Finally, they noticed the presence of Giorgio, a young graduate student who worked as Elena’s assistant at his first excavation. The young curly man, baked by the sun, had quietly gotten out of the driver side, and was standing beside the car, shy and embarrassed in front of the noisy reunion.
«Giorgio, my assistant» said Elena, simultaneously addressing all the others.
«Giorgio, I introduce you to my husband Andrew, my dear and precious mother Emma, Paolo, a family friend, and my twin pests Anna and Matthew.»
«Nice to meet you» said Andrew, holding out his hand «come and dine with us, I see that you are not only Elena’s assistant, but also her driver, her porter, and, I suppose, her secretary» he ended with an amused laugh.
«Andy! Don’t destroy my spectacular reputation as a scientist so quickly!» joked his wife.
They walked to the table under the trees that shone in the candlelight. They chatted, laughed, and had fun until late telling each other the events of the last months.
For the twins it was time to sleep, after greeting the guests and wishing them goodnight, they went to their rooms, tired and happy for the nice evening, but at the same time focused on their dazzling discovery. They began to discuss what they had learned during the dinner.
Matthew turned to his sister, looking at the Seal in his hands «What do you think about the story Paolo told us? At this point, do you believe that this object is a fake?»
«Do you want to hear the logical version or the fanciful one?» Anna looked out the window; she seemed lost in her thoughts.
«Both, sister. I am curious about both!» answered Matt.
«Well, let’s start with the logical and rational version. Arthur McKenzie created the Seal, and used it to seal his letters with wax. He was fixated with dragons, and it’s obvious he built it in accordance with his imagination and his studies. The box that we found, before it was sold at auction, was his and he put his writings inside of it. »
After a pausing briefly, Anna went on «the version of the King twins, as crazy as the writer in question, if not more: McKenzie actually was in touch with the world of dragons, or he found conclusive evidence of their past existence. The Alphabet was, or better yet is, real, and not a flight of fancy. The Seal is incredibly old, much older than we think. If dragons came to earth to help primitive man to evolve, well, our jewel must be at least one hundred thousand years old.»
«After centuries of oblivion, it arrived in our hands because we have been chosen to solve this mystery» concluded Matt in a dreamy voice.
«I don’t know if you noticed one detail; if it was a wax seal, it should have the Professor’s initials, that is to say AMK or AM, but these letters seem to me like an A and an S» he went on quietly.
Anna took the object from his brother’s hands, and watched it carefully then conceded «You’re right, the mystery is growing more and more strange.»
The silence filled the room, broken only by the chirping of crickets on the trees in the garden. The lights were off, and only the moonlight illuminated the twins who held the treasure in their hands.
Anna was the first to break the spell «Goodnight Matthew, tomorrow morning we will try to find Professor McKenzie’s book.»
The next morning Anna woke up early, got dressed and entered her brother’s room without finding him. She imagined he had risen even earlier, and that he had rushed to the PC to search the works of the Scottish professor.
In fact Matt was in the kitchen, nibbling a cookie he held in one hand, while, with the other, he was messing around with the laptop keyboard.
«Mommy and granny are out» he said without looking up from the screen.
«As I imagined, since you are eating breakfast at the PC, otherwise I would hear their screams from above. Did you find anything interesting?» asked Anna.
«The complete list of McKenzie’s works. I’ll show you the titles. I think we buy the first, the treatise entitled “The Dragons’ language, writing and interpretation of symbols”, but I don’t know how to» Matt finally raised his eyes from the screen, and looked at his sister.
«Let’s call daddy’s bookstore, and ask them to provide us with this volume by the end of the week. Since we have to go to Padua to go shopping, we’ll pass by the library and get it.»
They contacted the store. The only answer they got was that nobody had ever heard of that mysterious writer. They tried out another bookseller, same answer. On the third failed attempt:
«Can you tell me where you even found this list of books?» asked Anna, annoyed.
«Well, on a site of elfish writers» answered Matt, hanging his head, his eyes half closed, waiting for his sister’s outburst, that was almost immediate.
«Since you were at it, you could’ve searched for Smith the Wizard who reads dwarves tarots, or Cluck the Witch who makes magical rune amulets» attacked Anna.
«Or the magical Fairy who gives you the winning numbers of the lottery or…» she went on.
«If you don’t like what I do, dear sister and Nobel Prize winner for pseudo-scientific research, you can browse for information by yourself» replied Matt, turning the laptop screen towards Anna.
«You are touchy!» concluded Anna.
«Sometimes I could take your little blonde head, put it on the keyboard, and, with as much grace as I am able to, I would close the screen on your head repeatedly, then I’d tie your feet to the three ton volume by Jacques de Clairance, and throw you in the pool» Matt smiled, keeping his cool.
They chased each other first in the kitchen, then in the garden, until they fell into the pool with their clothes on. They came out laughing crazily.
«I’ve had an inspiration» Matt started.
«Does cold water reactivate your brain?» asked Anna.
His only answer was to throw her in the pool again.
«Do you want to explain this idea to me or should I have a swim?» said Anna, slipping off her flip-flops, and throwing them to her brother.
«Let’s copy the other cartouches, and we will look for information about McKenzie in England, indeed in London, so when we reach the King grandparents, maybe we’ll find what we are interested in» said Matt.
«This is the first clever thing you say this morning» answered Anna swimming.
Summer holidays, finally! By the end of June, it was time to leave for England where their grandparents, William and Elizabeth King, would offer them, as they had every year, a pleasant journey to discover the birthplace of their father Andrew.
That morning Matthew sat peacefully at the kitchen table, occupied, as usual, in eating breakfast with toasted bread and jam when the noise of footsteps and the screams of Anna rushing down the stairs interrupted him.
«Cornwall! Cornwall! Matt, where are you? Matt!» yelled Anna, wildly waving a sheet in her hand.
Matt rose slowly from the chair, calm and impassive like a true Lord, he walked towards his sister and, with two fingers, he slipped the sheet out from her hand, then he read it with great composure. End of composure.
«Amazing! What an amazing coincidence! A journey to discover runes» Matt turned to Anna «Hurry up! Why are you just standing there? Move it! Let’s pack up, take the camera, the laptop, the papers and the connection cables.»
He ran to the table, and took the last slice of bread and jam biting into it.
«Bhe brawings ob bhe Seal boo!» He said, pouring a shower of sticky crumbs all around. He was seized by a bad cough that forced him to swallow an entire glass of orange juice.
Until then Anna had remained near the stairs, looking at her brother with amusement. Raising an eyebrow she said ironically «Didn’t your mom ever say you not to speak with your mouth full?»
«Ha! Don’t be so sarcastic. Did you think of a place to hide the Seal, while we are away? Surely you don’t want to carry it with us, and risk losing it, or having it stolen, do you?» said Matthew.
«You’re becoming a little anxious like your father!» answered Anna.
«He’s your father TOO!» retorted Matt picked.
They burst out laughing and, jigging about, they went to their rooms to prepare for departure, while their grandmother watched them, shaking her head in amusement.
Once in Anna’s room, the twins took the Seal they had temporarily placed in a drawer.
«Let’s copy all the cartouches and the strange drawing on the base» said Matt «then we must think carefully how and where to hide it.»
No sooner said than done. Once the inscriptions were reproduced, Anna had a brilliant idea «take a sock Matt, we’ll put the Seal in, wrap everything in this handkerchief, and we’ll hide it in the headboard of my bed.»
She crawled under her canopy bed, and moved a plank, which revealed an empty space that seemed large enough to stuff their precious bundle.
«Atchoo» Anna sneezed loudly.
«Dust, I guess; you don’t follow grandmother’s advice on cleaning. If you take a sample, you will be able to study the stratigraphy and discover the age of your precious bed» said Matt, teasing her.
«Of course. The Hygiene Wizard spoke, the same who passes the vacuum cleaner between each plank. Gosh! Atchoo! There is not enough room to fit it in» said Anna, closing the plank and coming out the hideout.
«Plank? Did you say plank? I have a brilliant idea» said Matt.
«Sure. Like a dust free floor» retorted Anna sarcastically.
They moved to the boy’s room, furnished in a minimalist Japanese style.
«Help me to move the futon» ordered Matt.
«Why? Under this huge bench with a duvet are you hiding a secret?» asked Anna.
«First of all, it is not a bench» began Matt, but Anna abruptly stopped him.
«Brother, spare me the lesson about Asian furnishing, and get to the point.»
Matt didn’t say a word, with a finger he pushed the end of a plank that raised, showing a hollow roomy enough to fit their treasure.
«I did not know this hiding place» said Anna.
«Naturally» answered Matt «I used it to keep you from eating all my sweets.»
«Can’t trust brothers» laughed Anna.
Then, organized and calm, they went on with the remaining preparations. Next morning at dawn, they left for the Venice airport with their mother Elena, in a day that on the Euganean hills would be sunny, sultry and very hot.
A few hours later, they landed in London under a grey sky and a nasty drizzle. They met the grandparents at the exit: grandfather William, tall and thin, elegant in his country gentleman attire and his black umbrella on his arm, and grandmother Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth as her husband jokingly called her, short and roundish, white haired and dressed in sportswear. She immediately took control of the group, living up to her nickname.
«My dears! I am so happy to see you all! Had you a good journey?» she went on «you look amazing! Elena, you are in great shape and you two, you are almost tropically tanned! Matt, queue up for a cab, Anna, help your mother with the luggage.»
They crammed into a classic London cab taking it to the fashionable Kensington.
They entered the hotel, while the sun burst through the clouds, showing a deep blue sky that brought out the bright green of grass and leaves in the park in front of them.
The rooms were comfortable and luxurious, with large, soft beds covered with fluffy duvets. In their room, the twins found a leaflet “Mini guide of London for young tourists: enjoyable itineraries”. Anna looked at it puzzled.
«I don’t define myself a young tourist.»
«Actually no, because of your venerable age» Matt was not able to finish the sentence. He was hit by a big pillow.
«You are really a natural born comic! I meant I do not feel like a tourist because I come to London every year» explained Anna patiently, and she went on «let’s see what they propose for us: Madame Tussaud’s, already visited, the zoo, visited, the Tower of London, already seen and…» she suddenly stopped.
«And? Anna, are you disconnected or something?» asked Matt.
Anna did not utter a word, but gave the brochure to her brother. On the top of the page, he read “Little Museum of Dragons –McKenzie House, Kensington”.
«Is it possible that he’s the same person Paolo Martini told us about? The same one we tried like maniacs to find without discovering anything? The author of the Dragons’ Alphabet?» asked Matt with incredulity.
«Of course. At least I suppose it is him. How many McKenzies dealing with this subject do you think there are?» Anna said. «I think the best thing to do is to go and see. Luckily the house is on the other side of the park, very close to us.»
When they met in the lobby, their grandparents asked them how they wanted to spend the afternoon. The twins in agreement expressed the wish to visit the McKenzie Museum.
«What is this young tourists’ trap affair?» said grandfather William chuckling.
«Come on dear, let’s meet their wish. It is sunny, and we will have a wonderful walk» answered the grandmother, winking to the grandchildren.
They walked through the gardens. The bright sun shone on the grass and the flaming colours of flowers. The park was wonderful and neatly curated; they could admire the ducks in the ponds, the squirrels chasing each other among the trees, tourists and Londoners enjoying the warm sunshine, lying on the thick grass as soft as a pillow.
Soon they saw an old, elegant and well-kept Victorian house; a sign saying “McKenzie House – Museum of Dragons” pompously stood on the wrought iron gate. They crossed the walkway and rang the brass bell.
A funny old man appeared on the threshold. He was bald, except for a crown of white hair, with a round face, round glasses and a Scottish waistcoat adorned with a chain, that ended in a precious pocket watch.
«Welcome dear kids and dear parents. My name is Charles McKenzie, son of Arthur McKenzie, Professor Emeritus. Please come in, five pounds per person.»
They came in: from the hall, a wooden staircase led to the upper floors, and on both sides there were two double doors.
«Well, well, here are two young people who will find this place interesting. On your left you can admire the professor’s study, where you will find the selected reproductions of his most famous works; on your right there is a room, where you can admire the collection of statues and other items about dragons that my excellent father picked up during his pilgrimages around the world» Charles said in one breath.
«Good gracious! I am afraid dear Charlie mistook his father for a cross between Shakespeare and Darwin» Grandfather William sneered softly, Elena laughed in a low voice.
«While the young ones entertain themselves, if you please, we adults could have some tea under the pergola in the back, two pounds per person» Charles smiled, while, with his strange strut, he led them in the garden.
«We gladly accept your kindly returned hospitality» smiled Grandfather William, and then in a low voice to his wife «This guy amuses me a lot. I want to see how far he can go with his two pound nerve!»
Elizabeth and Elena nodded him to shut up, holding back their laughter.
In the meanwhile, Anna and Matt rushed in the study, ignoring the junk room, as they had quickly renamed it.
The room had high ceilings; wooden panels covered the walls. Shelves full of books, manuscripts and drawings spilling from bookcases filled the study. Beside a massive desk placed in front of the window, there was a bookstand where they saw a big book with a thick red leather cover with the title “Dragons’ Runic Alphabet” written in golden characters.
«At last, here it is! Of course it’s not a paperback, it must weigh a ton!» whispered Anna in rapture.
«Grab the camera and take a photo of every page, this book is impossible to find! Hurry before someone enters the room» Matt said in an anxious voice.
They opened the backpack, grabbed the camera and began to take pictures, leafing rapidly through the pages, barely understanding what they saw; the rush to record the information reigned supreme.
Suddenly Matt turned to the window door overlooking the garden, where long and white curtains moved slowly in the gentle summer breeze. He remained motionless.
Busy taking pictures, Anna realized his brother had stopped turning the pages.
«What are you doing? Does this seem like the time to turn into a salt statue?» the words died on her lips.
Looking up, she saw a girl, more or less of their same age, or so it seemed, leaning against the doorjamb, and watching her slyly with amusement.
The newcomer had long black hair, a perfect oval-shaped face and very dark eyes. She seemed like she just returned from horse riding, in fact, she wore a stylish red jacket, leather boots and held a black velvet-riding helmet in her gloved hands.
The girl moved from the door, took off her gloves in a fluid and regal motion, and held out her hand to Anna.
«Hello, my name is Vivian Morgan McKenzie, I am Arthur’s great granddaughter.»
«Nice to meet you, my name is Anna King and he is my twin brother Matthew» said Anna slightly embarrassed to be caught in the act.
In the meantime, Matt stood still in the middle of the room, his mouth open.
Vivian came to greet him: no reaction.
«Don’t worry, perhaps he drools a bit, but he doesn’t bite» said Anna, shaking her brother.
«N-nice to-to m-meet you, I-I’m Ma-Matthew Ki-King» faltered the boy with lovestuck eyes.
«I know you will never believe me now, but he is quite smart, and he is able to speak» Anna chuckled turning to Vivian, who laughed merrily.
«I must point out, the pleasant surprise, that you like the study more than the small museum of horrors at its side. Don’t you want to admire the glass balls or the teddy bears?» asked Vivian ironically.
«N-no! We are looking for a real dragon, you know, we want to decipher the S…»
Matt was not able to finish the sentence. With an angelic expression on her face, his sister took a step back, stamping violently on his foot.
«Ouch!» was all he could utter.
«Oops, I am so sorry, I am so clumsy today!» Anna falsely apologized, throwing him a glance that would have reduced anyone to ashes.
«Do it again, and the next shoes you buy, will be flippers, after I stomp on you» said an angry Matt, then he carried on the interrupted sentence «…ense of the dragon runes.»
Vivian observed them carefully with a quick glance.
Not deceived by the scene, she realized the twins were hiding something, and she decided to delve into the subject.
«I’ll admit I’m looking for a dragon too, I suppose the news is not surprising, after all, my great-grandfather started this family tradition years ago» Vivian told them.
«The book you are looking at with such a great interest, it is not authentic. It’s the tourist version revised by my grandfather Charles. Do you want to see Arthur’s original writings?» Anyone could see that this was a rhetorical question.
«Come in, let’s go upstairs to my room, but I warn you: I require an exchange of information! You must tell me what you know, and I will do the same. Agreed?» said Vivian, looking straight at Anna.
They climbed the stairs toward the girl’s room with her leading the way. Vivian opened the massive oak single leaf door; though accustomed to the magnificent historical houses they had often visited with their mother, the twins were amazed. The room was very large with flying dragons painted on the high ceiling. Three walls were creamy white, but in front of the four-poster bed, finely carved with oriental dragons, they saw that the fourth wall was decorated with a colour scale of dark blue and with a constellation painted in gold. It seemed to really be a piece of night sky.
Through the open window, they could dimly hear the voices of the adults chatting in the garden.
«Vivian! It is wonderful! This painting is spectacular, what constellation is that? I can’t recognize it» said Anna excited.
«It is the constellation of the Dragon, as it appears from the stone in the centre of Stonehenge during the winter solstice» explained Vivian «I was there last year. A remarkable representation of the ancient cults of Druids.»
«Why three stars are bigger, and, I think, more brilliant?» asked Matthew with interest, looking carefully at the painting.
«I don’t know, my great grandfather personally made this work, and no one knows the true meaning. He was such a talented painter!» said Vivian with conviction.
Anna was taking an innocent little tour in the room. She stopped near the chest of drawers on which there was a fine silver frame; inside there was a picture of Vivian with a young man with curly black hair and wonderful grey eyes. He seemed to be older than they were.
Vivian saw her «he is my brother Tristan, he is in boarding school right now, but he should come back within days.»
«Tristan?» asked Anna.
«Tristan?» asked Matt like an echo.
Vivian laughed «well, my parents are academics and experts in King Arthur’s myths.»
«Oh I see, Tristan is the knight, and you are the fairy» said Matt.
«The witch! Vivian was a witch!» Anna kindly emphasized.
«Your sister is right, I feel more like a witch than a fairy» Vivian chuckled insolently.
«Well, let’s move on to more serious topics; let’s put our cards on the table! Why are you so interested in the work of my great-grandfather? You are among the few, indeed to be honest the only ones, who took pictures of the pages of the Alphabet.»
A heavy silence fell in the room, it was clear that none of them wanted to tell their secrets and the result of their searches. They sat on the carpet in front of the open window. The blonde hair of the twins was in strong contrast with Vivian’s black hair.
«A friend of our father jokingly told us about the Dragons’ Alphabet written by your great-grandfather» Anna broke the silence.
«Earlier, in an old text by Jacques de Clairance about African Dragons we were reading, we found a parchment which seemed very old» Anna lied.
«This document reproduced a sort of Egyptian cartouche, and contained both hieroglyphs and runes which appeared archaic to us» went on Matthew with considerable shamelessness.
«It was the first time we saw such different and distant languages mixed together in a single text» explained the boy.
«We imagined it could be a message in a very ancient code, which could lead us to find out something remarkable about the existence of dragons. Discovering a Museum dedicated to your great-grandfather, who tried to solve this mystery throughout his entire life, was an irresistible temptation for us» concluded Anna.
Vivian shook her head, her black hair with purple shimmers glittering under the sunlight.
«Are you spending your whole holiday in London?» she asked.
«No, we are leaving tomorrow to Cornwall» answered Anna.
Suddenly Vivian became thoughtful, then she rose, and walked slowly to a small painted wooden closet. She withdrew a small box. She returned near the twins, and sat down cross-legged on the carpet, clutching the box she had on her legs.
«Inside this box I keep my most precious treasures, among them I would like to show you Arthur McKenzie’s Journal, written in 1935. On one condition: dear Matt, I’ll give you my e-mail address, and you must promise me that you will keep me informed of any new discovery» whispered Vivian.
«I beg your pardon, but we met only five minutes ago. To make sure that you’re not going to deceive me, I’ll allow you to read only a part of the journal. You will learn about the rest in exchange for updates about your research!» said Vivian.
«Why do you care so much about our project? And why should we do what you ask?» said Anna frowning.
«To your first question I reply: I am a McKenzie, and I believe in the existence of dragons. To the second I tell you I can be extremely useful, and soon I will show you how much. I would come with you, but I must stay in London» answered the girl, throwing a cold glance to Anna.
Then with a charming smile, she went on «Then do we have an agreement Matt. Do we?»
«S-sure» replied the latter, looking dazed.
Anna made an annoyed gesture, but sat quietly, waiting for the odd girl revelations.
Vivian opened the box, and pulled out a worn notebook with a black leather cover. With calm and measured movements, she turned the pages, until she found what she wanted, which she handed to the twins.
Anna and Matthew began to read the old yellowed sheets covered by a thin calligraphy of the past written in black ink, now faded.
After few moments, they looked up, astonished.
«Absolutely unbelievable» they said together.
A track to follow
A light breeze gently shook the white muslin curtains of the open window.
In a Nordic blue sky, the summer sun shone on the three children; a deep silence reigned in the room. For a while, the twins exchanged surprised glances of disbelief.
They held Arthur McKenzie’s journal, opened to the page Vivian gave them.
«When did your great grandfather write it?» asked Anna, breaking the silence.
Her voice seemed to resound loudly in the big room.
«During a holiday in 1935, as I already said. Guess where?» answered Vivian.
«In Cornwall!» whispered the twins.
«Right. Read aloud, please».
Her eyes shut as if in meditation, Vivian was about to listen to the reading, although she knew it by heart.
There are four days to go before my departure from these magical places. Then, I will come back to London, and finally my beloved Mary and I will get married. I am incredibly happy, but also sad because I know this is my last absurd search. Afterwards I shall and I will devote myself to the academic career, to build a future for my family, I hope a large one.”
«A vain hope: my grandfather Charles was the only child they had, but please go on, now it becomes interesting» interrupted Vivian.
“The day before yesterday I spent the whole time, from sunrise to sunset, within the circle of Stonehenge. Sitting in front of the stone in the middle of the monument, I thought, I observed, and I waited for the sun to carry on its journey. I listened to the sounds bouncing off these giant slabs of stone. Here even the noise becomes mysterious, hypnotic, and it speaks, even if I do not understand what it says. Then, the sunset: the sun fell down between the two megaliths behind the altar. Finally, I got it! I started running around like a madman, and I am mad, but with joy! A horizontal line like a lintel, two vertical lines like two huge boulders, and a circle in the middle: our star! The meaning of one symbol of the Seal was finally clear to me.”
Arriving at that word, the twins let accidentally let go of the journal, exchanging a look of complicity.
Vivian watched their reactions with careful attention.
«Tell me please, what do you know about the Seal? It quite obviously is not breaking news» she asked with penetrating eyes.
Anna sent a mental message to her brother, hoping the latter plucked it telepathically on the fly, as when they were small children “Pay attention! Danger!”
Matt frowned; he had picked up the signal.
«The word suggests nothing to us at all, however, as we told you, we found this parchment, and we suddenly thought that the drawings we believed were archaic runes, could instead be the symbols interpreted by your great grandfather» explained Matt with the most convincing tone he was capable of.
«Mmmh, it could be so…» said Vivian in a very doubtful voice.
It’s five o’clock in the morning; I am running to the station to catch the train to Penzance. I did not sleep. I spent the night with the Seal in my hands, studying it and reflecting. Inside one of the curious carved squares, I recognized the reproduction of the setting sun on Stonehenge rock, and below it an engraving formed by crossed vertical lines and a single line. Arthur, think! Think! I repeated until exhaustion. I have been studying Celts for years, but I do not understand. Because of weariness, of course. Lines and slashes, lines and slashes, sure! Why did I not understand before? Numbers! They are numbers! Or better yet, it is a number, number nineteen to be precise. I took the map with trembling hands: the Nineteen Damsels! Those strange steles! That is my next step. So here I am, travelling to this lovely village like a lazy tourist.”
Vivian interrupted them, placing a hand on the opened diary.
«I’ll allow you to read one more page, then we need to talk.»
Since yesterday, I’ve been wandering like a lost soul among these artistically riddled rocks. I think I know them by heart, like old friends. I observed them all, inch by inch, moving the vegetation, which thrives under the rain. If I catch a cold, Mary will not forgive me. However, I go on searching.
I am soaked, and I am shivering. The weather is bad, it is late, and the inn will not give me the dinner anymore. It does not matter, because I found what I was looking for. Moving a shrub, I saw it! Carved in the stone, there was a triangle with a circle inside. Therefore, I had the confirmation. This is the third and last symbol appearing on the Seal. I am sure in the next place I will find the answer to all my questions. Although now the new question is: what is the depicted place?”
Vivian reached out a hand to take back the journal, but Anna grabbed her arm.
«You said we could read the whole page. Aren’t you going to keep your word?»
«No! You’ll end it here, but since you find the topic so interesting, you will cooperate obviously. Till now I was kind and patient, but I am not sure it will be the same in the future.»
Anna pretended not to understand the harsh tone of the girl, the curiosity and the importance of the information put everything in the background.
Alas! I am coming back to London empty handed and broken hearted. Last night, while I was drinking my cup of tea with the map on my knees and a tourist handbook in a hand, I had a brilliant idea: the triangle with the circle inside could represent the Rocky Valley, where a waterfall flows through a round hole eroded in a sharp rock. With no modesty at all, for few minutes I thought I was a genius. At dawn, I caught the usual train to St. Nectan’s Glen. The day was sunny, so I could take a hike with my backpack and this journal. I searched for hours on the riverbanks. I even dove in that icy water to get as close as possible to the hole in the stone. Nothing. I found nothing. As only three runes appear in the midst of a writing I do not know, maybe ancient Egyptian, I cannot go on. Perhaps I will not be able to continue this adventure anymore, but my discoveries in these days…”
Anna was about to turn the page, but Vivian was rapid in snatching the diary from her hands.
«My dear Anna, in the study you almost broke your brother’s foot while he was saying S as Seal, then you heard that word and you drop the diary» she said looking at the girl, her eyes half shut.
«Come on! You can’t underestimate me so much! Out with it! It’s your turn to explain.»
Matt put a hand on Anna’s arm who hinted a sudden movement.
«You are right, Vivian. We have only told you half the story» began Matt, ignoring the crushing hold of his sister.
«Within the book we spoke of before, we found two parchments we have carefully copied.»
In saying so, he opened his backpack and pulled out two sheets «Here they are; as you can see, on a cartouche, that’s what it is, there are the drawings Arthur described in his journal. You can keep them, if you want.»
«What are the other carvings?» asked Vivian.
«We think they are proto-hieroglyphs or hieroglyphs» answered Anna.
«Tomorrow you will leave London for your adventure holidays; I suppose you will try to solve the mystery from where my great grandfather stopped. You must know that there are other interesting topics you didn’t read, so our agreement is: you report me your findings, and I help you by using the details in the diary. Do we agree?» Vivian said and went on «how do you know so well Ancient Egypt?»
«Our mother is an archaeologist, she has been working in that area in the last few years» answered Matt.
«My mother is an archaeologist too! I wonder if they know each other, but my mom focused on pre-Columbian civilizations» said Vivian.
«At least we share one thing, always better than the absolute nothing of ten seconds ago» said Anna in an annoyed voice «agreement accepted: we will communicate by e-mail, let’s shake hands.»
«Then it’s decided» answered Vivian, taking the twins hands in hers.
«Someone is calling you; we must come down, but remember! You know one part of the story, and I know the other» she went on «to show you my friendship, I give you a copy of the Dragons’ Alphabet. Be careful, because my grandfather will try to sell one to you before you leave, but it is a revised version for tourists, so don’t accept it.»
They left the room and headed toward the stairs. At the ground floor, they saw Charles, their grandparents and Elena.
«Are you Gwen Stuart’s daughter?» Elena asked to Vivian.
«Yes I am. Nice to meet you, I suppose you are the twins’ mom» said Vivian in a sweet voice.
«Yes, I am Elena King, if you hear from your mother, say hello from me. We worked together in Guatemala, years ago. What a great scientist!»
«I will tell her your kind words» answered Vivian, then she turned to Anna and Matt «it is a small world, isn’t it? Don’t forget to send me news.»
Before taking leave, Charles tried his last shot «dear children, because of your interest in the subject, as shown by the fact you became good friends with my granddaughter at once, I offer you this unbeatable masterpiece written by my famous father for only…»
«Ten pounds?» asked grandfather William with unconcealed irony and great fun.
«Well, no! Fifteen pounds. We must calculate the costs for printing, the limited edition and the distribution» answered poor Charles. He had not understood the joke.
«No, thank you» said the twins at the same time.
«Oh! What a pity! You do not know what a masterpiece you are missing. Are you sure? It was a great pleasure to meet you, I hope we will meet again soon» said Charles with conviction, leading them to the door.
«I am quite sure we will meet again sooner than we can imagine» whispered Vivian in the ear of an enraptured Matt.
Hardly out the gate, William King snorted.
«I hope, for my sanity, not to see dear Charlie anymore. I was entertained at times, but this man and his damned father‘Arthur-finding-a-dragon-tomorrow-morning’ are completely crazy. In that house everything has a price, our Charles knows well how to screw over young tourists.»
«I was afraid you would ask us to buy that sort of book, thank God you were wise, and noticed the trap» Elena intervened in the conversation «that poor girl won’t have an easy life, while her mother travels around the world like me. You should be grateful for your luck.»
«We feel very, very lucky, you don’t know how much» said Anna with great relief.
«Poor Vivian» Matt sighed, and said in a low voice to be heard only by his sister «a real fairy!»
«Let me remind you in mythology Vivian was a witch, she was called a fairy only because she was young and beautiful, but she was a witch! Her second name is Morgan, as Morgana, another witch, therefore she was a double witch!» emphasized Anna in a sharp voice.
«You’re envious! She is so beautiful!» said Matt.
«She is really beautiful, I can’t deny, but you are bewitched. Love at first sight must have short-circuited your brain, as she wanted» laughed Anna.
«You couldn’t possibly understand» said an annoyed and offended Matt.
They did not address all the way back through the park, which had become even more charming in the setting sun. Back at the hotel, they went into their room. Refreshed and changed, they sat on a wooden bench covered with pillows under the bow window.
«Do you want to hold a grudge against me for a long time, my third-rate Lancelot, or can we discuss the things we saw today and decide on the plan for upcoming days?» asked Anna in a defensive mood, her arms folded.
«First point: Lancelot loved a Queen and not a fairy. Second point: even if you think my brains have turned to mush, I didn’t forget our mission» answered Matthew, his eyes still frowning.
«Peace?» proposed Anna.
«Peace» accepted Matt cheering up. He didn’t like to quarrel with his sister.
«Grab a sheet of paper and a pen! As long as I have the symbols in my in mind, I must draw them!» began Matt, demonstrating, though he was really focused on his second point.
Sitting close, they drew the signs they had seen scrawled on Arthur’s journal. They had learned them by heart, like expert archaeologists.
«The first sign, like on the Seal: two vertical lines, a horizontal one and a circle in the middle: Stonehenge. McKenzie found the second clue there, crossed lines and a single line: number nineteen» resumed Anna.
«Thank God, he got it! I would never think it would be a number. However, in his diary he wrote nineteen Damsels. What kind of place could that be?» asked Matt.
Anna was busy searching the web on the laptop «Ha! Found it! The old Professor, poor man, had no internet available. I think it could be this place called Merry Maidens, in fact the merry maidens are nineteen steles set in a circle.»
«Excellent! Great technology and great brain! The Professor also drew a triangle with a circle inside, and he went to Rocky Valley» exclaimed Matt.
«Look at the pictures! Rocky Valley is an incredible place; there is a small waterfall flowing through a hole in a rock. The next clue must be there. I can’t wait to go there» said Anna.
«My dear, use your brain! When I say “use your brain”, I mean look at the copy of the first cartouche we made, there are three runes and three hieroglyphs below. Watch them carefully. Until now we were too absorbed by the adventure, and did not focus enough» said Matt.
«Sure. In your opinion, we should find the hieroglyph inside the waterfall. That’s quite nonsense. Arthur said he did not find anything, and there are only three runes, it may be a mystery with no solution» Anna tried to go on.
«Use your brain and focus! You are flying on the wings of fantasy. The first glyph looks like a creeping snake, and we have already seen it. You defined it “the snake of the green bucket”, because it reminded you of the little snake we found trapped in the old bucket in the garden that we set it free in the meadow» remembered Matt.
Anna had an enlightenment.
«Wow, you are almost brilliant!» Then, seeing Matt looking too much pleased with what she said, she specified «I said ALMOST brilliant, and I underline the word “almost”» then she went on «The Valley of the Kings! We were visiting a tomb decorated with paintings depicting the Book of the Dead, a real wonder. It seemed like it was painted a few days before and not three thousand years before, but the snake was the only thing I noticed.»
«Well, you were six! Mom told us it represented the concept of a winding road, that is to say, although he was a King in life, the Pharaoh had to struggle to get his reward in the after world» concluded Matt.
Their mother and grandparents called them for dining in the restaurant, interrupting their thoughts. During the meal, they were unusually quiet. They ate absent-mindedly what they found in the dish. Matt did not even ask another helping of raspberry cheesecake, his favourite dessert.
The adults made no comment, they were aware that, from time to time, the twins lost themselves in their dream worlds, and an afternoon spent with dragons must have had that effect.
After dinner, they moved to the large garden to drink a cup of coffee. Anna and Matt insisted on returning to their room; they had to solve the riddle, and to decide what to do in the following days.
«While I dipped the spoon in the cake, the possible meaning of the last hieroglyph came to my mind» said Matt, crossing the threshold.
«Are you telling me that a raspberry inspired you? You should eat another slice, as you usually do, so we would have all the answers» said Anna sarcastically.
«If you don’t stop, I won’t reveal anything to you, and since your ice cream with strawberry topping suggested nothing to you, so much the worse for you!» said a teasing Matt, but he went on «I will pretend not to have heard you. The last sign means…» He paused, jumping on the sofa, as if waiting for a drum roll «… the Key of the Kingdom!» yelled Matt.
«What?» asked Anna twice.
«Come on! Look at it! Don’t you think it is similar to the key of Isis without the roundness above and with the bolt below?» said Matt, putting the sheet under his sister’s nose.
«Highly scientific deduction, but for now since we’re basing it on an object we do not know whether it is original or not, and on the ruminations of a mad Professor, I can’t exclude anything» concluded Anna.
«In short: three places lost in Cornwall are the clues that should lead us, or show us, a winding path, then there is an untranslatable hieroglyph, then the Key of the Kingdom» added Anna.
They suddenly stopped, they watched each other, and all of a sudden, they were arm in arm dancing, singing and jumping all around the room «we will find the Key of the Kingdom of Dragons! We will find the Key of the Kingdom of Dragons!»
Their mother found them so, she did not comment, she merely told them to go to sleep because the next morning they would rent a car and leave for Cornwall very early.